Necessary Detour

We love our wild bird friends. At haying time, we precede the tractor with a field perimeter check on ATV to be certain any young cranes or turkeys are safely herded into the tree-line, away from the dangerous, whirring sickle bar. At first sighting, out goes the hummingbird feeders to welcome the tiny winged friends back to the Northwoods, along with carefully planted wildflowers they adore.

Robins nest right at the creamery’s front door, swallows and sparrows share the near-century-old barn, and red-winged blackbirds delight in the swamps and creek-bed that ring the farm. Morning chores are delighted with the calls and joyful chatterings of a host of wild winged friends. Bug eaters, seed eaters…yes, even that annoying raven the egg-stealer.

So when it’s time to be in the garden, taking care of our bird friends continues. Each year, a pair of killdeer (scuttling about on their long, stick-like legs) steak their claim in the garden for another season of raising little ones. Some years they pick out a gravelly spot on the hill, others a hidden corner, but always on the ground, open to the sky. Perfectly camouflaged, the speckled eggs are impossible to see. Someone must have tipped those birds off about that naughty raven!

But the killdeer parents know exactly where that nest is, and they’re determined to not let you find it! As we descended upon the garden with the broadfork and buckets of compost, the dusty-brown birds with their classic black-and-white markings cried and fussed, dancing before us with their classic, “Oh dear, look, I have a broken wing!” moves, displaying pretty rust-colored feathers on their back and tail to catch the eye.

This display is meant to lure the predator towards them and away from the nest. Of course, their wing is not broken, and if I draw too close, they simply fly away. It’s all just a trick! How clever, really.

But what those little killdeer don’t know is that it’s actually better if I DO know where their nest lies! It’s quite possible to step on it unknowingly, since the colors and textures blend in so perfectly with the surroundings.

So this year, as we were preparing a bed for peas, the killdeers descended in their typical frantic fashion—time to find that nest! We searched among the tall weeds we didn’t get pulled out last year, and we searched in the straw-bedded walkways. No nest was to be found. But if you watch the bird behavior and search in the opposite direction of where they are trying to lead you, that’s when some success in the “hot and cold” game of killdeer nest finding happens.

Then finally, there it was, a small bowl-shape in the middle of one of the raised beds, neatly lined with little bits of wood and inset with four, perfect eggs. We kept our distance so momma bird could get back to sitting and aimed our attention at other beds.

But one bed over was slated for onions, which really needed to get into the ground. Kara and I had been pecking away at the planting in between caring for the growing number of baby animals on the farm, and momma bird fussed and fretted, even though we meant her no harm.

She, of course, doesn’t know this. To her, we might be the biggest egg-eating monsters in the world! And here she had picked this lovely fenced-in spot with a nice view and harmless ducky neighbors. How dare we barge in and spoil her peace!

Kara was working on the last bag of onions yesterday afternoon when I joined her to finish off the shallots. Momma killdeer had been prancing and dancing, but Kara was just ignoring her, until she finally settled back down on her nest, watching. In that position of rest, she’s the exact same color as the soil and difficult to see if you don’t know where she is.

Her beady, dark eyes kept a close watch on us, especially Kara, who was slowly encroaching one row over, poking the soil with her wooden dibble and stuffing in the sweet onion sets.

“She’s right there!” Kara pointed when I joined her. “Now and then she gets poofed up, but now she’s just watching me.”

We worked quietly, trying to finish the task before sundown. Kara inched closer from one side and I from another as we closed in the gap to finish off the bed. All of a sudden, as Kara was planting away, too close was too close, and momma killdeer stood right up and started screaming at her like an alarm system going off.

We both jumped. “You’ll give me a heart attack!” Kara scolded. “Goodness sakes, settle down!”

But settling down wasn’t going to happen. She hollered and shrieked, cried and chirped, looking like she was ready to charge Kara head-on.

“I’ve just got one handful of onions left girlie, hold on!” Kara countered, but momma killdeer wasn’t listening. She huffed and strutted, keeping her screaming, siren-like call going steady, ready to split our ears open.

“All right, all right, we’re done now. We’ll leave you alone!” We picked up our empty bags and carefully retreated. She wasn’t happy until we had left the garden, and she still wasn’t terribly happy then either.

“And stay out!” she seemed to stay, prancing and complaining in her birdy way.

But she was back on the nest again this morning. I hope her chicks hatch soon so we can make more progress in the garden, but for now leaving that bed alone is a necessary detour. May all of her precious eggs hatch into wonderful, fuzzy children for next year’s killdeer adventures. See you down on the farm sometime.

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